Posted by: Liz Massey | March 14, 2009

Sharpening Your Focus in Order to Create: Leo Babauta on “The Power of Less”

Leo Babauta

Leo Babauta

Today, I post a wonderful e-interview I recently had with author and online superstar Leo Babauta, creator of the insanely popular (and really, really useful) blogs Zen Habits and Write to Done.

Leo’s new book, “The Power of Less,” is a powerful antidote to our contemporary society’s emphasis on doing, being and having “more” to be successful. His thesis, which aligns quite well with my own thoughts on this subject, is that it’s better to do fewer things that bring you closer to what is truly essential to you than to pursue actions in a scattershot fashion, hoping that some of them will bring you happiness.

Long-time readers of this blog will also note that Leo is the first artist that interviewed in my “In the Studio With…” series. He’s a powerful advocate for living the creative life, and his new book (as well as his other work) provides tremendous tools and suggestions for being able to have time to create.

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What inspired you to write The Power of Less when there are so many other successful productivity books on the market?

Leo: When I launched Zen Habits in January 2007, it quickly became apparent that a lot of people were looking for the message of simple productivity I was writing about — as evidence by the rapid growth of the blog. In the first year alone, I had 27,000 subscribers and was one of the Top 50 blogs according to Technorati, and the response from my readers was overwhelming.

There didn’t seem to be other books with the same message, although there are many excellent productivity books out there. It was a need I wanted to fill, and what’s more, I had a message that I thought a lot of people wanted to hear, and I felt I could reach a wider audience with a book.

“The Power of Less” is completely different than most productivity books because it doesn’t show us how to get more done, or how to be more efficient, but how to simplify and to be more effective.

Why is a simple approach better for organizing one’s life?

Leo: I’ve always felt that simplifying is better than organizing, actually. If you have 20 things to do today, you have to be very organized to get them all done. But if you choose just the three most important things, you don’t have much organizing to do — you just do the three things in order of importance. The same comes to organizing anything: you don’t have to organize much if you’ve simplified things.

How might your concept of self-imposed limits to aid decision making impact an artist’s creative process?

Leo: As a writer, I’ve found that limits have freed up my time and working space so that I can focus on creating, instead of all the other things going on in my life. Instead of letting email or other communication or tasks take over my workday, I’ve limited those things to make room for my writing. Setting limits on what you do is a way to allow you to focus on what’s most important: creating.

Limiting the number of projects you’re working on is another important tool — when you work on too many projects at once, you can’t really focus on any one project. That makes it tough to really pour yourself into a creative project, if you have 10 other projects pulling at your creativity and attention. By focusing on one writing project at a time, I am much more effective in getting my writing done, and what’s more, my writing is better too.

How can artists get over any fear of being limited hampering their creativity?

Leo: Every artist has his or her own process, so I won’t try to prescribe any one method of working, but I think it’s important to experiment with different methods to see what works best. I’ve found, through experimenting, that focusing on one thing at a time allows me to really pour myself into a task, to forget the world around me, and that actually allows me to be more creative than when I have a million distractions.

It’s also important to remember that I’m not suggesting people limit their creative activities … limitations are best when applied to other things, such as email or work tasks, that you don’t want to overwhelm your work day. This, again, creates room for the more important tasks, such as creative work.

How can creative people apply your book’s principles in a way that doesn’t shut out serendipity or other unexpected blessings?

Leo: Simplifying your life actually leads you more open to new opportunities, in my experience. When our lives are crammed full of too many things to do, we cannot take advantage of new things that come up because we don’t have the time, or our attention is too scattered from everything on our plate.

By focusing on the important things, the things you’re most passionate about, and making room by eliminating the non-essential, we open the door to new opportunities and blessings. It’s worked fantastically well in my life — I’ve found amazing new things that I never would have found before, only because I’ve opened my life up to it by simplifying.

How can readers use this book and its principles when doing something inherently expansive, such as brainstorming or idea-gathering?

Leo: Brainstorming or idea-gathering are best when you clear away other distractions, and allow yourself to really focus on what you’re doing. “The Power of Less” advocates doing exactly that — clear away distractions like IM and Twitter and email and phones and clutter, so that you can really pour yourself into tasks like that.

How might working artists apply the “one goal” principle while still having enough projects in the works to make a living?

Leo: A couple different ideas here: one is that the One Goal could be to be able to make a living off your art (for example), and the way you do that is by completing enough projects to bring in the income you need. So your One Goal doesn’t necessarily mean shutting out the projects you need to make a living.

Second, if you decide to work on one project at a time, that doesn’t mean you’re not going to have other projects on your back burner — it just means you’re going to focus on one project, right now. I’ve found that working this way is actually much more effective, because I get projects done faster by focusing on one at a time. I suggest you try this method and see if it works — but as I said before, everyone works differently.

Can you explain the difference between single-tasking and working simultaneously on 2-3 projects?

Leo: Single-tasking is working on one task at a time, so that you can really focus on it, be more effective, and reduce your stress. Working on several projects at once is usually less effective, more stressful, and is technically impossible — you can’t do more than one task at a time, but you can switch back and forth between several tasks, rapidly. This kind of switching means your attention and focus is pulled in many different directions, which is less effective. It’s harder to do a good job on any one task or project if you’re thinking about 3 other tasks at the same time.

Which sections in your book might benefit creative persons the most?

Leo: “The Power of Less” should appeal to anyone who lives in our modern world of technology and feels overwhelmed and needs to find focus. However, creative persons especially have a need to use technology without losing focus on their creative work. There’s no doubt in my mind that technology is a powerful tool for the creative person — while it’s not necessary to create, technology can expand your creative powers and allow you to do things you could never do before. But technology can also overwhelm the creative person, and there’s an increasingly urgent need to find a balance between using technology and finding space away from it to create.

“The Power of Less” shows us how to set limits on communication and other uses of technology so we can create the space we need to be creative.

Tell us a little bit about establishing simple daily routines and how this might benefit a creative person.

Leo: Establishing simple daily routine — such as a morning routine or evening routine — is just a way to ensure that there’s a little order to an otherwise chaotic day, that we get the things done we really want to get done every day.

So if you’re a writer, for example, and you want to ensure that you get some writing done before you get into the million other things you need to do, you’ll put writing in your morning routine. If exercise is important too, you can include that. If, like me, you consider reading an important part of being a writer, you can include reading in your morning routine.

Putting these essential things in a nice order that you can repeat every morning not only ensures that the important things get done, but also create a peaceful way to start your day. I like to have coffee and read in the morning, followed by exercise and then some writing — these things calm me and are an amazing way for me to start a work day.

Which principle from your book is the most difficult for you to maintain personally? Why?

Leo: Doing one thing or one goal at a time. I tend to get ambitious and want to take on 5 goals at a time, or try to do a bunch of tasks at once. Unfortunately, I think this is what most of us tend to do, but it’s not very effective. We tend to jump from one thing to another without really finding focus, without completing anything.

When I remind myself that I’m doing too many things at once, I take a deep breath, take a step back, and think about what I really want to focus on. Then I clear distractions, focus on that one thing, and I’m much calmer and much more effective. I’m not perfect but I think it’s important to practice, fail, and practice again. We get better with practice, of course.

In your experience, what is the ultimate creative benefit of applying the principles in your book to one’s life?

Leo: I’ve heard from so many people who say that they really want to write, or take photographs, or paint, or design, or whatever … but they just don’t have the time, or they get sidetracked with everything else they have to do. By creating space in your life for what’s important, you start to map out the life you want to lead, and you make creating the center of your life, as it should be.

“The Power of Less” allows you to figure out what’s most important, to make room for that, and to live a life based on your real priorities, not a life that is overrun by external forces.

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Responses

  1. Great interview. I can appreciate the principles. I will be picking up the book. Thanks for sharing.

  2. […] I’ve spoken with Leo Babauta several times on this blog, most recently in relation to his book The Power of Less. This recent post on Leo’s Zen Habits blog is a lovely, quite specific articulation of how […]

  3. […] mobile or online tools to perform our work or enhance it. Author Leo Babauta, writing in his book The Power of Less, suggests experimenting with finding the absolute minimum number of times you can connect […]


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